Meddlesome Matchmaker Makes a Match for Herself, in Hello, Dolly!

Santo Loquasto’s costumes and sets shine as Betty Buckley slyly tackles the title role (through March 17, at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre).

Hello, Dolly!Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Santo Loquasto, the costume designer for Hello, Dolly! (at SHN Golden Gate Theatre through March 17), must have taken his inspiration from a bakery counter filled with stacks and stacks of macarons. When the people of Yonkers stretch their legs and stroll on stage to sing “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” they’re dressed in layers of rainbow-colored clothes. One man’s suit, including his vest and boutonnière, combines shades of citrus, tangerine paired with kumquat and lemon. Another woman’s dress, bustle, and parasol blush from pink to berry to rose. When the professional matchmaker Dolly Levi makes her grandiloquent entrance in Act Two, she’s a vision in scarlet. The color runs from her heels up to a crown of quivering feathers cresting high above her head. Everyone on stage looks good enough to eat.

This is, of course, the prized role that the late Carol Channing made famous over the course of decades. But in this production, the burden of selling Dolly as the most charismatic person who ever set foot on the island of Manhattan belongs to Betty Buckley, the original Grizabella in Cats. Arguably more in the style of Bette Midler’s take on Dolly than Channing’s, Buckley sells the role slyly, sending well-timed witty inflections to the cast at large and, standing alone on stage, with heartfelt asides to the ghost of her late husband Ephraim. The arc of her storyline includes a matchmaking subplot between a pair of earnest young lovers, Cornelius (Nic Rouleau) and Irene (Analisa Leaming). But their romance is a foil and a plot device that eventually furthers her plans.

Dolly’s not in love with the “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Louis J. Stadlen) but marrying him would mean she wouldn’t have to hustle to make a living anymore. Apart from his money, Vandergelder has as much charm as Ebenezer Scrooge. He doesn’t show a glimmer of kindness or much potential as a love interest until he reprises the song “Hello, Dolly!,” which is transformed by his sudden tenderness near the end of the second act. If you don’t scrutinize the two of them too deeply, it’s easier to believe in their love affair as a mismatched odd couple.     

In regard to that titular song, one question dogs the mind: Why are the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant so happy to welcome the widowed Dolly back after so many years? When she ate there with Ephraim back in the day, were the Levis exceptionally good tippers?

It’s hard to account for their enthusiasm, especially after they’ve just danced their asses off in “The Waiters’ Gallop.” That dance — in which cutlery, servillettes, and tableware are fondled with a sense of acrobatic abandon — reminds the audience how exhilarating choreography can be when it’s being performed by so many graceful, athletic bodies united in motion. “Hello, Dolly!,” the famous set piece in Jerry Herman’s musical, might qualify as the ultimate narcissistic fantasy of self-congratulation. No matter which door she walks through, Dolly imagines herself beloved by the world. Not only are the waiters supportive background characters as she makes her triumphant return to society, but so too is her love interest.

Dolly’s absence from and subsequent return to society might account for the high jolts of color and the general feeling of joyousness. The world on stage is refracted through her eyes as she experiences a renewal, a delayed coming-out party at this late date in her life. Hello, Dolly! is a story about winter that reverses course to embrace the oncoming warmth of spring. Loquasto, who also designed the sets, created backdrops in subtler pastels that correspond with the turn of the 20th century. The bright costumes, and the people wearing them, stand out in relief. He’s devised a clever visual schema to evoke a bygone era while also complementing the jaunty mood of the lyrics and music. 

Hello, Dolly! is a celebration of appetites, both carnal and culinary. The scene which drew the most laughs showed Dolly savoring her dinner at the restaurant as if it were the first meal she’d eaten in years. As the scene in the Harmonia Gardens devolves into a farcical state of pandemonium, Dolly relishes every last morsel on her plate. While she’s gnawing away on a turkey bone, the sumptuous restaurant set is dismantled and then replaced by a courtroom straight out of Nosferatu. The courthouse building leans back and retreats at an impossible angle. A red light casts an ominous feeling across the stage. And yet, the audience is so focussed on Dolly’s pleasure that the distorted set design doesn’t feel threatening. Now that she’s back where she belongs, drinking down champagne and gravy in equal parts, Dolly’s renewed appetite for life is a magical panacea for herself and everyone drawn inside her orbit. If she had a mantra it would be gustatory, like that one put forth by Mary Poppins: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in the most delightful way.

Hello, Dolly!through March 17, at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. $76-$256; 888-746-1799 or shnsf.com

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